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Religion : its social roots and role

Monday 2 June 2008, by Robert Paris

Definitions of religion, like definitions of the state, generally tell us more about the social and political allegiances of the author of a given definition than about the true nature of religion or the state. Loyalties – that is, class interests and class outlook – are transferred into definitions; especially is this true of religion. Typical of such definitions is a theologian’s formula for Christianity as ‘the synthesis of the highest aspirations of man’. The fact that definitions are declarations of class allegiance and class programmes does not at all mean – as empiricists and pragmatists pretend – that all definitions are therefore of equal validity. On the contrary. Just as Marxists, in controverting ‘classless’ and other fraudulent theories of the state can point to historical and contemporary class functions of the state as a class organ used by the dominant class; so, too, Marxists are able to confront all apologetic definitions of religion with the actual social function of religion.

What are the roots of religion? The most favourite trick of the obscurantists and their allies is to pretend that religion is rooted in the mind. That is how the perpetuation of religious prejudices, creeds, etc, is usually explained. Exposing this falsehood Lenin wrote:

Why does religion retain its hold in the backward layers of the urban proletariat, in the broad layers of semi-proletarians and also in the mass peasantry? Because of the ignorance of the people – replies a bourgeois progressive, a radical, or a bourgeois materialist ... The Marxist says: Not true! Such a view is superficial; it is narrow bourgeois “culture-spreading”. Such a view does not probe deeply enough into the roots of religion. In modern capitalist countries these roots are primarily social. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, First Russian Edition, vol. XI, Book 1, pp. 253–254)

It is precisely because of this social role of religion – teaching submissiveness, summoning all to suffer in silence in return for rewards in the ‘hereafter’ etc, and in this way seeking to dampen the class struggle of workers against capitalists, of peasants against landlords – it is precisely for this reason that Marx designated religion as the ‘opium of the people’, and Lenin branded it as ‘a kind of spiritual corn-whisky’.

To lay bare the social roots and social function of religion is to expose it for what it really is. Which is precisely what the apologists of capitalism and all its institutions seek in every way to avoid. It is hardly surprising therefore that one of the most significant gaps in apologetic definitions of religion is the omission of the fact that religion is an institution; the fact that a religion, if it plays any role in a given society, is an organised religion. One scarcely need point out, as against this omission of the fact of institutionalisation, that a religion which remains unorganised would not perpetuate itself.

What would an unorganised religion be? It might be enunciated by some individuals and communicated to others. But if these did not organise together, acquire property and funds, endow churches and subsidiary institutions, carry on extensive propaganda, raise up a professional paid class of ministers and administrators, how would the religion be communicated to great numbers? The blood of the martyrs may be the seed of the church, but that the seed sprouts and is perpetuated is due to union with Rome, to the riches garnered by the church, to its position as the greatest of feudal landholders. This is indeed a commonplace, except that it has been so obscured by the English Dissenting tradition which is the main source of American religious thinking.

This tradition of a lower class, once so suspicious of established church and state, and therefore appealing to the direct inspiration of the Word of God, with a lay ministry and tiny meeting-houses, is still reiterated by the descendants of the Dissenters, who are now the ruling class of America, with powerful, enormously wealthy churches, with a clergy whose administrative duties make them as much businessmen as priests, with the fusion of different sects, and the centralisation of church control growing every day more pronounced. The hypocrisy of John D. Rockefeller’s Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick sermonising that the church is not so important as the pure heart is only too transparent – provided one is not wearing blinkers.

This institutional character of religion, glossed over by religious apologists as somehow irrelevant to the religious core of the church, is highly relevant to any serious description and analysis of the function of religion.

In every epoch of history, the existing institutions are bound up with the social relations of production. As the Catholic church was the bulwark of feudalism, so today all churches are part of the arsenal of capitalism, share in its privileges and fortunes. In the class struggles which arise from the antagonisms implicit in the mode of production, the dominant institutions, including the churches, support the ruling classes.

In the epochs before the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the differences between classes were expressed also in different religions; that is, the new classes struggling against the ruling class have also given birth to new religions which wage parallel struggles with the dominant religion. The struggles against feudalism became struggles also against the then greatest feudal landowner, the Catholic church. The peasant wars against the clergy and nobility, in the 15th and 16th centuries, took the form of the Anabaptist, Albigensian, Hussite, Lollard heresies: In defence of its domains and privileges, the church demands submission to it as the only channel of grace; the peasants counter by proclaiming the central authority of the gospels.

So, too, the revolt of the middle classes of Germany under Luther, which, as Engels has pointed out, takes the form of a demand for a cheap church similar to the later bourgeois and petty-bourgeois demand for cheap government, is also a religious heresy. In the same way, the revolt of the rising bourgeoisie of England against irresponsible monarchy and feudal landowners takes the form of a Puritan and Sectarian struggle against the established church.

Bourgeois anti-clericalism

It is interesting to note that, as the meaning of the bourgeois revolutions grows clearer to the plebeian revolutionists, the fight against the church grows less and less a fight of one religion against another. Thus, the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848 no longer obscure their tasks with religious ideology; the class fighting its way upward has no need of seeing its struggle as a religious one. The mists of religion, obscuring the real contending forces, become a hindrance to the class fighting an uphill fight. If this is true of the later bourgeois revolutions, revolutions which serve only to transfer power from one minority ruling class to another, how much more true must this be of the proletarian revolution, which is to do away with all classes, and whose success, whose very programme of action, is based on the scientific analysis of the nature of social life free of all fetishisms.

Since the Puritan revolt there has been no important example of a class struggle also taking the form of religion. All later religious movements have been reactionary in character. The religious movements among the lower classes, such as the evangelistic sects, like the Baptists and Methodists, were a substitute for secular protest, combining with their wails of anguish explicit submission to the powers that be. The other religious substitute for secular protest, the religious communist colonies, belongs to the history of utopian socialism and comes at a time when the role of utopian socialism has become a reactionary one.

What happened to bourgeois anti-clericalism? Once the bourgeoisie triumph, they, too, find like the ruling class which preceded them that religion is useful to the state, and freethinking and atheism become in their eyes identified with ‘immorality’ etc, i.e., hatred of the established order. The realistic rationalism of the epoch of bourgeois revolution passes; no American politician who announced the beliefs of Jefferson and Patrick Henry, or even the indifferent churchgoing of Washington, would be run nowadays for office.

Tom Paine, the propagandist of the American revolution, became, for Theodore Roosevelt, ‘that filthy little atheist’. In France, its classic home, anti-clericalism remained longest, owing to the political usefulness of the traditions of the Revolution, and continual conflicts over property with the Catholic church. But despite any manifest unfriendliness, the church of Rome laboured to find favour in the eyes of French capital, and at long last, it has not laboured in vain. When a flare-up between the church and the Chamber of Deputies occurred in 1924, the Journal des Debats, organ of the most important French imperialists, sharply warned the government against breaking with the Holy See, ‘because of the large number of French Catholic institutions abroad’. ‘French influence,’ the journal said, ‘in Asia Minor and North Africa is largely maintained through these [Catholic] institutions.’ The rush of the formerly anti-clerical bourgeoisie into the arms of the church became so precipitous and for such obvious reasons that the church itself felt embarrassed. Here is how Abbé Ernest Dimnet commented on this sudden influx of converts:

Today it is remarkable that the French upper middle classes are the main support of religion and go to great expense in order to support the schools in which their children are educated in a religious atmosphere totally different from that in which the previous generations grew up. The majority in the French Chamber may still be Masonic... French governments in consequence cannot but feel the influence of the lodges and might be expected to be anti-clerical. Yet they are not. Monks and nuns have returned to their schools and teach in their costumes. The Archbishop of Paris is on the best terms with the Prime Minister and a recent legal case has shown that the government regards the Papal Nuncio as a valuable ally.

‘What does this mean?’ asks the reverend father. It is true, he sadly goes on, ‘that the bourgeoisie and the politicians representing it have opened their eyes to the social utility of religion. A mean notion of religion, this utilitarianism in the land of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc! ... But in France as in the rest of the world there is, working for a return to religion, something higher than opportunism’. And so forth and so on.

Sanctifying wealth

Thus passed the last stronghold of anti-clericalism. The Catholic church has adjusted itself to its capitalistic successors, and serves them as loyally as she once served feudalism. Once she completes the process of adjusting herself, with some necessary losses of estates, to the new capitalist regime of Spain, the Catholic church will have finally completed her transition from feudalism to capitalism. Her losses will be little enough in the process, if she can help herself. On the same day that the Pope by radio condemned ‘men for fixing their eyes on earthly goods’, he demanded cash reparations of thirty million dollars from the Spanish government for church property destroyed by the revolution.

In America, once the Civil War decided that capitalism was to be master of the continent, the churches proceeded to become capitalist with a brazenness which no established church has ever outdone. The example of the Baptist church is a good one, since it had always been known as a poor man’s church. As I have said, these evangelical movements were once substitutes for social protest; however, as they prospered, they ceased to be substitutes for social protest and became glorifiers of the social order. Baptist ministers indignantly repudiated the idea that the Baptist churches are composed of the poor of the world. A prominent Baptist divine has declared:

God has so blessed [us], temporally, as well as spiritually, that we could demonstrate that the aggregate of wealth among [us] is far greater than of some ecclesiastical fraternities whose members not infrequently put on lordly airs and affect to despise the Baptists for their poverty.

The concept of the sanctification of wealth became a creed of the churches. Dollars and godliness were pronounced to go together. Capitalists were ‘God’s stewards’. Baptist conventions passed resolutions saying that they ‘thankfully recognised the rich blessing of the Great Head of the Church, in the recent gift of Brother John D. Rockefeller’ (or other millionaire Brothers Vassar, Bishop, Colgate, Deane, etc, etc). The Christian Standard urged businessmen to take over the administration of church affairs, for who, it asked, was ‘so qualified to do business as a businessman, and who to spend God’s money as his legitimate stewards?’

It ought to be noted that the developing control of the churches by capitalism was more than an obviously direct control. While the Protestant churches have been directly controlled by the businessmen – who generally control property, funds and ministers – this kind of control is not at all indispensable to the general support of capitalism by the churches. As a matter of fact, the most effective supporters of capitalism are not the obvious hirelings but the apparent volunteers. The short-sighted businessmen who directly control the Protestant churches may prevent at crucial moments a flexibility which is much more valuable to capitalism. In this, the Catholic church has proved superior to Protestant. In Spain the ally of the feudal nobles, in Italy of Fascism, in Germany of the Social Democracy, all at the same time. Thus, the Catholic church has been the saviour of capitalism in ways impossible for the less flexible Protestants. Her union with German socialists helped bring forth the Weimar constitution, saving capitalism, while the Protestant churches, in the hands of Junkers and industrialists, were unable to manoeuvre. The Catholic church knows how to yield the husk to save the kernel. Today [This was written in 1932 – Ed.] she is unwilling, in America, officially to recognise the principle of trade unionism (though she exercises considerable influence in the AFL.) Tomorrow, if it is necessary to hold the masses from rushing forward, the Catholic church will organise trade unions. This flexibility, plus the fact that so far as the working masses in large numbers go to church, they are Catholics, bids fair to give the Catholic church an increasingly important role in American capitalist struggle against the workers.

In general, when the underdog struggles, it is high time for the top dog to call down to him in the name of brotherhood. In particular, this has been the role of the Social Gospel. To bring the worker into the church or at least to persuade him that the church is not his enemy; offering either religious techniques for solving the social problems or paper programmes, which mean nothing and which, even on paper, go no further than the mildest of liberalisms. This, and an occasional gesture. The high water mark of the Social Gospel in this country was the Interchurch World Movement’s report on the steel strike after it failed; the result was the collapse of the Interchurch organisation. I once asked a secretary of the Federated Council of Churches why his organisation did not do things like the steel strike report. He looked hurt. Why, he said, ‘that steel strike report put us in a fix which we have just about dragged ourselves out of now. Do you want to ruin us?’

The measure of direct control of the churches, therefore, is not a sufficient index to their capitalist loyalty. Nor is their relation to the state. The political privileges of the churches, their freedom from taxation, their right to conduct religious schools or teach religion in the public schools, blasphemy and Sunday laws, religious propaganda in the armed forces and legislatures, etc, are also not the most significant revelations of the capitalist role of the churches. The fact is that formal separation of church and state, like the formal appearance of impartiality assumed by capitalist ‘democracy’, is the most efficient form under which the churches can function in the interests of capitalism. An established church is suspect even by scarcely class-conscious workers. Under the slogan of freedom from state domination, the church performs its best work for capitalism.

The mechanics of deception

The ministers and administrators of the churches are by income or social status part of the capitalist class, move in it and have their being in it. They simply express the capitalist ideology of their class. The principles of capitalism become, as by a process of osmosis, the principles of religion under capitalism. When the pillar of the Baptist church, John D. Rockefeller, declared, as he fought the Ludlow strikers, that the great principle at stake was that American workmen should not be deprived of their ‘right’ to work for whom they please, the Baptist pulpits echoed him. The clergy howled for the blood of the Haymarket martyrs, as did the capitalists. When Theodore Roosevelt pronounced Debs an ‘undesirable citizen’ he was but repeating the gist of thousands of sermons. The history of the development of the American working class is mirrored in the capitalist propaganda of the churches, their calling the workers to submission, their outright strikebreaking, their regimentation of the workers for the capitalist parties, etc., etc.

As a matter of fact, the churches, in their inculcation of the standards which are also inculcated by school, press, radio and state, have an immeasurable advantage over other institutions. What the others teach to be correct as a matter of expediency, advisability or judiciousness, the church teaches as the word of God or connects with religious significance or translates into archaic, sonorous language far more effective than the language of school and press and state. The world war of 1914–1918 proved this to the hilt. They turned the war of capitalism into a holy war, and God’s habitations became the most effective recruiting stations. In this capacity of the churches to make religious principles out of practical politics lies their greatest service to capitalism.

Bourgeois thinkers occasionally blurt out this fact. I quote, as an example, the following unguarded soliloquy of James Bryce. That philistine becomes thoughtful as, in his survey of the American Commonwealth, he is struck by the important role of the churches:

No one is so thoughtless as not sometimes to ask himself what would befall mankind if the solid fabric of [religious] belief on which their morality has hitherto rested, or at least been deemed by them to rest, were suddenly to break up and vanish ... Morality with religion for its sanction has hitherto been the basis of social polity, except under military despotisms ... So sometimes, standing in the midst of a great American city, and watching the throngs of eager figures streaming hither and thither, marking the sharp contrasts of poverty and wealth, an increasing mass of wretchedness and an increasing display of luxury ... one is startled by the thought of what might befall this huge yet delicate fabric of laws and commerce and social institutions were the foundation it has rested on to crumble away ... History cannot answer this question. The most she can tell us is that hitherto civilised society has rested on religion, and that free government has prospered best among religious people.

No wonder, then, that no Commencement address in schools and universities is complete without a tribute to religion; and no Chamber of Commerce banquet ended without someone sounding the religious note. No wonder that in dedicating a statue of Francis Asbury, that Methodist pioneer, Coolidge should have declared:

Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind.

In the midst of the imperialist war of 1914 1918, Lenin wrote:

Feuerbach was right when in reply to those who defended religion on the ground that it consoles the people, he pointed out the reactionary meaning of consolation: ‘Whoever consoles the slave instead of arousing him to revolt against slavery, aids the slaveholder.’ All oppressing classes of every description need two social functions to safeguard their domination: the function of a hangman, and the function of a priest. The hangman is to quell the protest and rebellion of the oppressed, the priest is to paint before them a perspective of mitigated sufferings and sacrifice under the same class rule (which it is particularly easy to do without guaranteeing the ‘possibility of their realisation’ ...). Thereby he reconciles them to class domination, weans them away from revolutionary actions, undermines their revolutionary spirit, destroys their revolutionary determination. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, English Edition, vol. XVIII, pp. 295–296.)

Whoever grasps and assimilates this Leninist-Marxist analysis of religion has learned the truth about the social function of religion. He who denies it, in the words of Feuerbach – aids the slaveholder.

Why are people religious? The glaring fault of bourgeois atheism is that its analysis of religion gives no hint as a rule of the social roots and function of modern religion. Abstract analyses of religion, even from an atheistic standpoint, thus in effect embellish religion – through omission. One might even say therefore that most bourgeois atheistic writing on religion creates an even greater mystery.

If bourgeois atheists cannot give us insight into why people are religious, still less will we receive our answer from religious people, particularly the professional peddlers of religion, the minister, preacher, priest, or rabbi whose task it is to embellish religion in every conceivable way. In a letter to Gorki, written in December 1913, Lenin pointed out that those who embellish, under any pretext, the idea of God or religion are thereby:

embellishing the chains which shackle the benighted workers and moujiks ... God is (historically and in day-to-day life) first of all a complex of ideas arising from the torpid condition of man under the oppression of external nature and class domination; ideas which reinforce this oppression, ideas which lull the class struggle. (Leninski Sbornik, vol. I, pp. 157–158.)

In a document, On the attitude of a workers’ party to religion, written in 1909, Lenin expounded the Marxist viewpoint as follows:

The social oppression of the toiling masses, their seemingly complete impotence in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which afflicts the rank-and-file toiling people daily and hourly with far more terrible sufferings and far more savage tortures than such uncommon events as wars, earthquakes and so on – this is where the most profound, modern root of religion is to be found. ‘Fear created the Gods.’ Fear before the blind force of capitalism – a blind force because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people – a force which at every step in the life of a proletarian and a petty proprietor threatens to bring and does bring him ‘sudden’, unexpected’, ‘accidental’ bankruptcy, ruination, transformation into a pauper or into a prostitute, or leads to hungry death – there is the root of modern religion. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, First Russian Edition, vol. XI, book 1, pp. 253–254.)

Let us now analyse some of the favourite ‘techniques’ – or tricks – of the religionists in order to lay bare what they seek to paint up.

The place of God in religion is emphasised and re-emphasised. Yet no really religious person is religious because, on occasion, he or she can offer ‘arguments’ proving the existence of God. For the common run of believers, which is to say, the overwhelming majority of religious people, God is simply ‘there’. Professional spokesmen of religion have good and sufficient reasons for putting undue emphasis on God.

Theologians and ‘God’

The theologian who must reduce to some order the vague feelings and behaviour of believers finds the most palatable solution in making God the organising principle; the minister, embarrassed by any scrutiny of the efficacy of prayer or the magical elements in ritual, draws attention away from these by emphasising God. In this way the actual relation of means and ends in religion is obscured and dislocated. We are told God is the goal of religion rather than God’s being one of the religious means. In consonance with this tendency, the newer prayer books list fewer and fewer prayers for specific needs and occasions; the Catholic church does not publicise the long roll of specialised saints who cater to specific needs. (Such as Breton saints of healing: St Lubin for all afflictions, Mamert for intestinal disorders, Meen for insanity, Hubert for dog bites, Livertin for headaches and Houarniaule to dispel fear, and so on.) The professional spokesmen for religion would have us ignore the occasion for prayer, the need or desire expressed, and throw the emphasis on the fact that the religionist prays to God.

Any acquaintance with religious people, however, soon teaches one that God is not the object as distinguished from the apparatus of religion, but that God is just as much part of the apparatus of religion as is church, prayer or ritual. The religionist does not pray to God merely in order to pray for God, no more than he prays merely in order to pray. The occasion for prayer need not, of course, be specific: religion is employed not only for specific needs or anxieties, but for the general reinforcement of the believer’s peace of mind, assurance and security. But whether religion is employed for specific or general purposes, in either case, God is part of the religious ‘technique’, not the purpose for which it is employed.

We may grant that there are some men for whom God is apparently not a religious ‘technique’ for expressing or securing needs. God, the religionist claims, is at least for some men not a technique, but an object of contemplation. God is such an object in Spinoza’s intellectual love of God; he is such an object to some mystics and theologians. Even in this type of religious situation, however, the significant factor is not the contemplation of God but the motivation of such contemplation. As Dewey has illustrated in his Quest for Certainty, God is sought, even in Spinoza’s case, because he is changeless and certain, as contrasted with our daily life of uncertainty. In other words, the intellectual love of God is only a sophisticated form of the so-called religious technique to ward off the confusion and peril of everyday life.

For the great masses of believers, this sophisticated form of religious ‘technique’ is unsatisfactory. They do not separate God from the rest of the complex of religious ‘techniques’ and institutions which constitute a church. The few for whom God is an object of contemplation might perhaps view with equanimity the role of the church as a bulwark of capitalism and take for granted the illusory efficacy of religion; but it is certain the masses do not take such a view. The main road to atheism for the masses is the discovery of the reactionary role of the churches and the social inefficacy of religion. A God who is believed to exist and cannot help them is not a God the masses continue to worship. The church may have been founded by Christ himself, but once the masses discover the role of the church, they break with it. The most effective propaganda against religion, as the Soviet Union demonstrates, is to reinforce the arguments against religion from science, proving that God does not exist, by the exposure of the church’s reactionary functions, the venality of the clergy, the fraudulence of relics, etc. Unlike a bourgeois atheist, the Marxist does not confine his systematic attack on religion merely to its ‘truth value’, but probes into its social roots. For the great masses of believers, with whom we are concerned, it is the exposure of the social function of religion that is conclusive.

Ethics and religion

In the same way that religious apologists emphasise the place of God in religion, so they also exaggerate the place of honorific ideals and values. Religion as the defender or conservator of ideals and values is also the position adopted by those so-called humanists who agree that God does not exist but who nevertheless wish to save religion. So the humanistic theologians of the University of Chicago define religion variously as ‘the conservation of human values’ (Ames), ‘a quest for the good life’ (Haydon) or the like. In the same way, but with a franker recognition of the actual role that religion has played, Harry F. Ward appeals to the ethics of Jesus as the true essence of religion. The arguments against any such attempted identifications of religion with ethics are conclusive.

Any ideal or value proposed as religious contains nothing in it which is per se religious. Security, harmony, happiness, the good life, love, peace – what is religious about these? They are the goals of all human effort. They can only be called religious if we falsely define life as a whole as religious. Some humanists do not shrink from this reductio ad absurdum. Professor Haydon, for instance, who defines religion as ‘a quest for the good life’, then goes on to speak indiscriminately of every quest as religious. Such attempts to save religion by relinquishing its identity must, however, be set down as the latest and most cynical defence of a vested interest. The identity of religion will not be found in ethics, though, of course, any ethical ideal may be spuriously expressed or sought for in religion. How efficacious is religion for the realisation of any such ideal? As we have seen, no ideals inimical to capitalism are furthered by religion. The realisation of ideals involves a belief in a kind of supernatural efficacy to which even the Catholic church does not assent publicly too often. I may add that when she does assert her belief in such a degree of supernatural efficacy, the Catholic church does so in support of the capitalist ideals which she furthers as an institution. An example is the Pope ordering prayers for Russia, prayers which, declared the Catholic Commonweal:

may affect the future much more profoundly than the success or failure of the Soviet government’s Five-Year Plan.

The best commentary on the relation of ethics to religion is the way in which the equalitarian doctrines of Jesus and his immediate followers is employed. These have their uses. ‘Christianity a capitalist religion?’ cries the preacher, ‘Why Jesus himself was a poor man!’ Or the rise of the church from its humble beginnings makes a Horatio Alger story edifying to the bourgeoisie and reinforcing the democratic illusions of the churchgoing masses. From Jesus’s cry for charity for the poor the medieval church drew the comforting and highly sophistical conclusion that if charity is a religious duty, we must always have the poor to give it to. The symbolical tendency of religious ritual serves to turn equalitarianism into a ceremonial which only serves to show the masses how good their rulers are. An example is Maundy Thursday. I quote a New York Times story of the last time King Alfonso of Spain was able to perform this pleasant ceremony:

Madrid, April 2 [1932], King Alfonso today got down on his knees in the royal palace to wash the feet of twelve poor men. Queen Victoria, in a gold and white court dress, with a white lace mantilla and elaborate jewels, washed the feet of twelve poor women, and the monarchs afterward served food to the group with their own hands.

Nobles, high church dignitaries, including the Papal Nuncio, resplendent Generals and members of the royal family in magnificent court regalia watched their Catholic Majesties observe the age-old custom of Maundy Thursday in thus administering to the poor in rags and tatters.

No, one cannot find the identity of religion in ethics.

‘Religious experience’

To the apologist’s attempt to cover up the fact that religion, including God, is a class institution employing a class technique, and the similar attempt to identify religion with ethics, one may add the attempt, for equally apologetic reasons, to discover and single out a unique experience to be called the religious experience. This is a game which was very popular with psychologists a few years ago, and a perennial source of employment for bourgeois philosophers. To controvert this hunt for the ‘numinous’, one has but to think of the innumerable range of human experiences which have been the occasion for prayer. As Professor Schneider once put it wittily:

‘Any good mystic can get more varieties of religious experience than a “numinous” psychologist can talk about.’

How modern ‘technique’ arose

I now reformulate the question with which I began, why are people religious? in this form: under what conditions are modern religious ‘techniques’ employed?

Let us return to the example of the French Revolution. Through the thought of the plebeian ideologues of the French Revolution streams the clear bright light of a new dawn in which humanity, bursting at last the fetters of feudal church and state, seems free to work out its own destiny. Confidence in humanity, assurance in the full capacity of men to evolve purely secular ways of fulfilling their potentialities, is the motif of all their writings. The theory of progress, progress without peril, is the dominant philosophy of the bourgeoisie itself on the eve of the Revolution. Hatred of the Catholic church as the bulwark of feudalism is united with hatred of religion because it attributes impotence to man. Destroy the existing forms of oppression and man will be free to pursue a glorious destiny.

But then comes the French Revolution and victory for the bourgeoisie. And behind them looms the menacing proletariat. Fear of the proletariat drives the bourgeoisie into a union with the remnants of feudalism, into relinquishing their power to Bonapartism; the inevitable contradictions of capitalist economy appear: individual failures, economic crises, war. The bright new dawn of the plebeian revolutionary ideologues is followed by the cold light of a day of new forms of oppression, bloodshed, suffering, anxiety. Few are able to understand how these must necessarily follow from the antagonistic mode of production of feudalism. Man’s omnipotence seems an illusory dream. Perhaps man is doomed to defeat? It is precisely the most sensitive sons of the new bourgeoisie who in the cold light of day start a Catholic revival. The economic rehabilitation of the Church, its role in keeping the masses in subjection, combine with the loss of self-confidence by the bourgeoisie; anti-clericalism shows signs of old age and finally disappears.

Source of fetishism

What we see so clearly in comparing the dawn and day of bourgeois revolution is a dominant characteristic of the everyday life of all classes in the capitalist era. The basic process was analysed by Marx who laid bare the fetishism of commodities.

The process of production is not mastered by man but is his master; man’s labours appear to him as elemental natural forces beyond his control. Forces so independent of his own control appear to him inevitably as non-social forces. Failure, crises, war appear as though by the inexorable hand of fate. Neither will, nor foresight, nor effort are in any case commensurate with results: the worker toils and yet starves, and is thrown out of work to suffer still more, by forces which cannot but seem mysterious and evil to him; the bourgeois is equally in the hands of fate; there is no relation between his efforts and rewards; he is superstitious when he plays a hunch on the stock-market and wins, equally superstitious when business prospers or fails. Commodities, the products of man’s own efforts, rear up like monsters to overwhelm their makers; the social relations, which should be merely the way in which men are organised to produce the necessities of life, these social relations of employer-employee, state-people, appear to be the mysterious and eternal dictates of inexorable law. Men are frustrated at every turn by their own social relations. They desire security, but whatever they may have, this they cannot have. They desire peace and prosperity and work for it, only to find themselves fighting devastating wars which bring in their wake economic catastrophes. The potentialities of most men are never realised. Their intellectual, aesthetic, social faculties are warped at every turn, no matter what class they belong to. There is a basic dualism between social ethics and practical activity. Attempts to satisfy human needs or potentialities fail or are frustrated under capitalism. It is inevitable under these circumstances that so many fall victims to the religious ‘techniques’.

It is precisely for the sake of what they hold dearest that the believers go down on their knees. For life and love, for food and shelter, for the innumerable needs and desires and hopes and dreams. Often they pray for no specific reason, but it is precisely then that they are praying for all their reasons, for the whole complex of hurt and pain and anxiety left by their crushed social status as Lenin so correctly pointed out.

‘The quest for certainty’

One of the most familiar religious techniques – i.e., fraudulent embellishments – is to contrast the hazards of change with the sureties of the changeless. In the religious revivals that have accompanied every business depression, the churches have pointed out the ‘lesson’. As the Christian Times once phrased it: ‘the sad experience of the uncertainty of worldly riches ... disposed the hearts of many to sigh for the durable riches’. Another Baptist paper, a few weeks after the panic of 1873 declared that ‘the suffering incident to the present state of affairs’ would ‘lead thousands to turn from the fleeting things of time to the realities of eternity’. Essentially, this is what John Dewey has sought to generalise as ‘the religious character of the philosopher’s quest for certainty’.

The religiosity accompanying depressions is a very clear illustration of the fetishism induced by the capitalist mode of production. The fleetingness of the things of time and the uncertainty of worldly riches are put down, quite automatically, as proof of the impotence of man and the necessity of fortifying himself – by religious ‘techniques’. As suspicions of the real causes of depressions have permeated society, especially today when the crass contradiction of starvation and overproduction lies bare, there is a growing tendency to say little about the rise in religiosity during crises, which has been so regular that it is called the evangelistic index; the obvious causes of the evangelistic index must seem to churchmen an embarrassing commentary on the functions of religion at all times.

The fetishism of commodities, resulting from the contradictions of capitalism, this phenomenon of men’s own labours overwhelming them, stultifying them and frustrating their best potentialities, causing them to fall prey to superstitions, rituals and the entire mumbo-jumbo of religion, this cannot be done away with by those in power, the bourgeoisie, without destroying themselves as a class. Faced by the contradictions of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, as in the case of the Catholic revival of the French bourgeoisie, can only turn to religion to help them survive the necessary evils of their own economy. At the same time, however, from the proletariat ranks there arises the beginnings of a scientific economic system – socialism. Here the bourgeoisie and the workers confront each other, as irreconcilable enemies.

For the proletariat the socialist way out is irreconcilable with the religious way out. To take the religious way out, the road of consolation and reconciliation, is possible only as long as the proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the illusions bred by capitalism in its ascendancy. Once, however, the proletarian vanguard has cut to the source of these illusions, has learned that the contradictions of capitalism are not given by fate, are not necessary evils, the main basis of religion becomes impossible for the proletarian movement – and for society as a whole.

Communism and religion

Will religion disappear under communism? Speaking of the fetishism of commodities, Marx says:

Such religious reflections of the real world will not disappear until the relations between human beings in their practical everyday life have assumed the aspect of perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations as between man and man, and as between man and nature. The life process of society, this meaning the material process of production, will not lose its veil of mystery until it becomes a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious and purposive control.

But those religionists, like Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, who tacitly recognise that it is the fetishism of the evils, frustrations and perversions of capitalism which are at the root of modern religion, insist, nevertheless, that communism will not do away with religion. There will still be, they say, the problems of our relation to the universe and the personal problems which no social system can solve.

It is least likely that ‘our relation to the universe’ will be a problem for religious solution. This phrase is generally a professional subterfuge of ministers. Moreover, those who point to the influence of nature on the religion of peasants and farmers ignore the conditions under which such religion flourishes. As Marx points out, it was not the direct relation to nature which made agricultural peoples religious. The process by which agricultural peoples produced the material necessities of life was an immature one; their interaction with nature, that is, their tilling of the soil, was immature – in their ignorance of the sciences of fertilising, irrigating, accurate planting, and intensive agriculture, they were at the mercy of the elements. It is for this reason that their relations to nature were correspondingly immature, and led to fetishism of nature. A mature process of agricultural production leads to a mature attitude toward nature. Under capitalism, the farmers’ attitude toward nature is inextricably involved with the fetishism of commodities. The mysteries of nature are to the farmer nothing so puzzling as the mysteries of the market which holds him in subjection. His fear for his crops is a fear driven by need. I have seen a community of farmers come together in a time of drought to pray; they know all about the natural causes of rain, but still they are apparently praying for rain. Actually, however, they are praying not for rain, but to be saved from the consequences which will befall them if their crops fail. Suppose, now, that no serious economic consequences would follow upon the failure of the crops, would the farmers be praying for rain? Under communism, that part of the community which will raise the foodstuffs will feel no terror when faced by crop failures; a purposive and systematic organisation of production will provide for such contingencies; surpluses from other years will always be on hand. Under communism, the individual farmer will not be penalised for drought or plague of crops, as he is under capitalism. Will he then pray for rain? or need to fortify himself by religion under continual anxiety and fear of failure? It scarcely seems likely. As for the rest of us, including the religious masses, our relation to nature is not a religious problem today. Only a Niebuhr could envisage man’s relation to nature becoming a ‘religious problem’ under communism.

So far as the ‘personal problems’ or ‘the personal equation’ is concerned, the trick of connecting these questions with religiosity is quite as threadbare as all the other ‘techniques’. It consists in transferring the individual as he or she exists today – warped, twisted, undeveloped, enslaved – into the free communist future where such ‘egos’ and all their problems, frustrations, fixations, neuroses, etc, etc, might perhaps be for a brief while subjects for nursery rhymes but certainly never topics of serious discussion among adults. To take such problems seriously is to forget the ABC of Marxism which is materialist to the core and which affirms that man’s consciousness is determined by the material environment and not vice versa.

We Trotskyists are firmly convinced that capitalism is the last refuge of religion; and once capitalism is abolished this opium of the people as Marx called it, this ‘kind of spiritual corn-whisky’ as Lenin aptly branded it, will be cast into the garbage heap of history, where it belongs.

Felix Morrow - Gods and Society (January 1935)

The Passing of the Gods
by V.P. Calverton
320 pp. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

In three hundred pages V.F. Calverton attempts to say a great many things about religion from primitive times to the present. Here, however, I should like to limit myself to one central point: the contrast between the conception of the nature of religion suggested by Marx and that of Calverton.

Calverton’s main thesis is that the savage’s fear of his natural environment, plus institutional and ideological inertia, accounts for the existence of religion. Religion arose because of primitive man’s inability to control his environment, and seemed to give man power to fulfil his economic needs. Then, in the last few centuries, “the agricultural world which had perpetuated the religious mentality began to give way to an industrial world in which that type of mentality was no longer needed. As the discovery of natural laws prepared the way for the mechanical inventions that made possible the Industrial Revolution, man became less dependent upon the gods and more dependent upon science for the power he needed over his environment” (p.87).

Calverton has obscured this general thesis by also accepting Frazer’s. Frazer makes a fundamental distinction between magic and religion; magic is for him primitive science, religion is primitive metaphysics. This distinction – which has been abandoned not only by most anthropologists but also by serious liberal religionists like A. Eustace Haydon, Shirley Jackson Case, etc. – has an apologetic function; it serves to obscure the instrumental character of religion; and is, in fact, logically contradictory to Calverton’s general thesis.

As for Calverton’s main thesis, it leads him to insist that religion today is disappearing; in line with this notion, he says:

“The best proof of that fact [that religion is disappearing] is to be seen in what has happened to Russia ... Today the religious, metaphysical mind has evaporated. Why? Because Soviet Russia has become an industrialized state ... The result has been that the religious mentality has been driven into irrecoverable retreat within the span of little more than a decade.” (p. 89.)

In capitalist countries, too, religion is fast disappearing.

“Notwithstanding all that may be said to the contrary, notwithstanding all the statistics of membership that the churches may cite, the fact remains that the religious mentality is in a state of disintegration and decay, with no hope left for its recovery. Its social purpose has been superseded by that of science.” (p. 89.)

In further proof of the death of religion, Calverton produces figures (p. 263) which he has apparently misunderstood: for they show church membership to be growing proportionally with the population, though stationary in percentage: whereas for Calverton’s thesis there would have to be a precipitous fall. Then, Calverton (perhaps attempting to overcome this contradiction) says:

“But the decline and decay of religion in America is more of a qualitative than a quantitative phenomenon. It is in spirit far more than in numbers that American religion has deteriorated.” (p. 267)

Here, of course, Calverton confuses two different meanings of decay: it is one thing to say that religion is decaying, meaning that by present intellectual and moral criteria it is no longer progressive: it is entirely different, and inadmissable, to say that religion is decaying in the sense that the churches are about to disappear.

A Marxist can have little in common with Calverton’s position. Throughout, when Calverton speaks of the “environment”, it is always clear from the context that he means the physical environment. This is particularly obvious in all references to science as giving us control over “the environment”. This is the position of bourgeois atheism, which holds that religion is generated as an escape from frustrations imposed on primitive man by uncontrolled nature, but which will not recognize the frustrations imposed on modern man by uncontrolled (bourgeois) forces of production.

What bourgeois atheism fails to recognize is that frustrations imposed by uncontrolled nature were social frustrations. The fetishism of nature which generated the primitive and ancient religions was the result of the fact that the social process of labor, that is the interaction of society with nature, was not fortified by adequate techniques; this social condition has long been supplanted as the main condition for the existence of religion. Calverton and bourgeois atheists fail to understand this too. But the fetishism which today sustains religion is what Marx called the fetishism of commodities. This means that the process of producing commodities is not mastered by society but is today the master of society.

Society’s labor appears to it in the form of elemental forces beyond its control. Forces so independent of control appear in the realm of experience, inevitably, as non-social forces indistinguishable from natural catastrophes. Business failures and crimes, war and poverty appear as though by the inexorable hand of fate. And to the individual, neither will, nor foresight, nor effort are in any way commensurate with results: the worker toils and yet starves, and is thrown out of work to suffer still more, by forces which cannot but seem mysterious and evil to him; the bourgeois is equally in the hands of fate, for there is no relation between his efforts and rewards; he is superstitious when he plays a In on the stockmarket and wins, and equally superstitious when business prospers or fails. Commodities, the products of society’s own efforts, rear up like monsters to overwhelm their maker. Men are frustrated at every. turn by their own social relations. There is a basic dualism between social ethics and practical activity. Attempts to satisfy our needs or potentialities by the secular techniques fail or are frustrates. It is inevitable under these circumstances that many should turn for satisfaction to the religious techniques.

The bourgeois atheist cannot understand this process because he cannot admit that the bourgeoisie is not the master of society’s productive forces. For him historical contradictions ended with feudalism, and thereafter there are only problems for science to solve in the course of its development. Even the liberal bourgeois aware of what he calls the “social problem” proposes its solution by new scientific processes or by the application of “knowledge”, i.e., by agreed upon technical methods, and not by social methods – which upon analysis mean class struggle. For the bourgeois atheist, therefore, it is impossible to understand that the roots of religion today are social, that no amount of enlightenment can break up the religious complex until the fetichisms which generate it are done away with by the building of a form of society which will be master of the productive forces. The Yaroslayskvs of the Soviet Union may make their vulgar boasts that they are doing away with religion, and many may believe them, but this is merely another perverted derivative of the theory of socialism in one country. Russia is in the grip of world economy, and to the Russian masses, too, in spite of the gigantic industrial developments, the forces of production cannot but still appear as forces with a demonic life of their own: the Protestant sects which have been springing up in the Soviet Union throughout the last ten years are proof of this fact.

Speaking of the fetishism of commodities, Marx says,

“Such reflections of the real world will not disappear until the relations between human beings in their practical everyday life have assumed the aspect of perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations as between man and man, and as between man and nature. The life process of society, this meaning the material process of production, will not lose its veil of mystery until it becomes a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious and purposive control.”

Calverton’s analysis of religion contains not an inkling of the main condition for the existence of religion today! Not a word about the process whereby man’s own labors confront him as independent forces. Calverton is, in this book as in much other work, ridden by the genetic fallacy. He thinks the primary origin of religion must still be its basis; and is ready to go so far, in fact, as to make religion a cultural hang-over, as it were, from the days when agriculture was the dominant form of production. This is hopelessly undialectical. Religion may have many origins, as may anything else which has a history. No Marxist would thinkingly put himself in the intellectual position that his criticism of religion today depended on its historical origins. What he is interested in is, primarily, the conditions for the existence of religion today.

Of these conditions there is no analysis at all in this book. In other words, this is a book designed to attack religion as a capitalist institution but which really cannot do so because it does not reveal the reasons for the existence of religion tinder capitalism.


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